The Tito Factor

BASEBALL, KARMA EVEN, MAY FINALLY BE BACK IN GOOD-VIBE-STARVED CLEVELAND. THE REASON WE'RE BULLISH ON THE TRIBE? A MANAGER WHO GETS THE MOST OUT OF HIS IMPERFECT PARTS
June 03, 2013

"Elbow! Elbow!" the photographers shouted, imploring each other to tuck in wayward appendages that had sneaked into the sights of their cameras. They crouched low, haunch to haunch, at least a dozen of them, and they trained their lenses on the entrance to the third base dugout at Fenway Park last Thursday. They jostled to capture that special moment when Terry Francona, the manager of the Red Sox for eight winning seasons and two championships, would survey Fenway Park for the first time as an opposing skipper. Perhaps he would shed a tear.

After a few minutes Francona ascended the steps from the clubhouse tunnel and promptly bumped his head, hard, on the low-slung doorway. "Damn," he mouthed. The photographers clicked away, sounding like an enormous, restless insect.

It was appropriate that Francona's return to Fenway did not go perfectly. He himself is not perfect, he readily admits. He has long fought a losing battle against chewing tobacco. He is divorcing. He used pain pills for a time. Of his life away from baseball he says, "I have no perspective."

He doesn't expect his players to be perfect, either. Which is a good thing, because they are not. Last October the Cleveland Indians hired the 54-year-old Francona away from ESPN, where he happily spent the 2012 season. As spring training approached, he asked the front office for dossiers on each of his players—not just scouting reports but head shots, so that the moment anyone arrived, Francona could greet him by name, like a conscientious college dean. "I've never been confused with that before," he says. "The idea is that when they walk through our doors, everybody—not just the guys that are our mainstays—deserves to be respected and feel wanted. Not only do we have an obligation to know what they do on the field, and know how to make 'em better, but to know who they are."

As he flipped through the photos, he saw a group of players with easily identifiable flaws. The nominal No. 1 starter who couldn't get lefties out. The oldest hitter in the majors. A whole lot of guys who strike out a whole lot.

The Indians, unusually for them, had spent aggressively over the winter. The club's $117 million off-season outlay exceeded that of any team outside the Los Angeles area, but the Indians did not sign anyone who might be considered a superstar, and most of their additions had already been passed over by the really big spenders. Nick Swisher, the former Yankee, signed for four years and $56 million last December; Michael Bourn, the speedy two-time All-Star, signed in February for four years and $48 million; and the 42-year-old former MVP Jason Giambi, who had interviewed for the Rockies' managerial job, then came to Cleveland on a one-year, $750,000 minor league deal.

They were all nice pieces, but each had his limitations, and none was by himself a franchise changer. General manager Chris Antonetti, though, thought he had hired the manager who could best fit them together. "You try to take the things your guys do well, and maximize them," says Francona—universally known as Tito. "We don't need to remind them of the things they don't do well, know what I mean? We try to almost make our guys feel indestructible."

As of Sunday the 27--22 Indians were third in the majors in runs (248), fourth in home runs (64) and third in OPS (.785). The team's success is very much the sum of its parts, and in some measure a result of Francona's strategizing. The Indians led the league in percentage of at bats taken with a platoon advantage. That's because the roster has several switch hitters, including Swisher, but also because Francona has liberally used his bench players—such as Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn, who have combined for 13 homers and 41 RBIs—in such situations, when they are most likely to succeed. "That's all up to Tito," says closer Chris Perez. "He's pullin' the strings."

Fans often debate how big an impact a manager has on a team's performance, and Francona's platoon orchestration is empirical evidence of his. But the Indians insist that far more important than his tactics is the culture he has instilled, in which the players are emboldened to be nothing more than the best versions of what their personalities and skill sets allow. "He looks for guys to be themselves, and he's not asking them to be anything different," says Antonetti.

"It started in spring training," says No. 1 starter Justin Masterson. "He said, 'Hey, it's not always going to be perfect, but we're going to do something special this year.' " Last season, when the Indians went 68--94 under Manny Acta, Masterson says he felt pressured to be better than he is, and that made him overly reliant on his best pitch, his fastball, which he threw 81% of the time, an MLB high. He went 11--15, with a 4.93 ERA, and lefties had their way with him, for a cumulative OPS of .825. This year Masterson has felt liberated to mix in his slider—which he now throws more than a quarter of the time—and he is 7--3, with an ERA of 3.20. Lefthanded batters have produced an OPS of just .647 against him. He has been an ace on a staff that has been better than expected. The team ERA, 4.78 last year, is 4.28 without any particularly notable new arms.

"With Tito, you are who you are, and we like that," says Perez.

Francona does not necessarily believe that baseball seasons have emotional turning points. "Whatever you do tonight is what's important," he says. His players, though, aren't so sure that they didn't experience one on May 6, against the Oakland A's.

The Indians entered the game with a record of 14--14, and in the bottom of the first, Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera hit back-to-back solo home runs off A's starter Jarrod Parker. Two batters later, Mark Reynolds stepped to the plate. Parker threw a 92-mph fastball that struck him on the left shoulder. "I don't know if he was trying to hit me," Reynolds says, "but it hurts, and it's up near my head."

Reynolds would have his revenge in the fifth. Parker's first pitch was another 92-mph fastball, but this one found the middle of the plate, and Reynolds devoted every watt of his significant power to crushing it. The ball traveled some 457 feet and landed in an area of the bleachers at Progressive Field that as far as anyone can recall only Jim Thome had ever before reached. "A mammo," Masterson calls it. "A bagoonga." After Reynolds made contact, he took a few slow steps toward first, spat and then stared at Parker for a moment. "He buzzed my tower, I hit a homer," says Reynolds. "We're even."

The blast was significant for several reasons. One of them was that Reynolds had been encouraged to swing that hard in the first place. Between 2008 and '12, with the Diamondbacks and the Orioles, Reynolds hit 164 homers, more than all but seven other players, but he also struck out 993 times, by far the most in the majors. Those whiffs turned off many clubs. He was nontendered by Baltimore last November, but picked up by the Indians 10 days later, for one year and $6 million. "Tito's told me from Day One, you go do what you do," Reynolds says. "Sure, we talk about maybe seeing a few pitches, approaches for different guys. But it's mainly, you swing the bat. You hit the ball far. You can change the game."

"You got a guy, a veteran player, that can hit the ball out of sight," says Francona. "I'd be silly not to embrace that." Francona's handling of Reynolds led not just to that home run but to 11 others, to go with a team-leading 40 RBIs. And, perhaps in part because he has been freed from worrying about striking out, a career-low strikeout rate.

Reynolds's shot might have been symbolically important for the Indians. Francona wants his players to express themselves. "I remember walking up to [Reynolds] and saying, 'Go get him, big boy,' because I was fired up," Francona says. Francona had no problem with Reynolds's brief stare-down, either. "Tito loved it," Reynolds says.

"It was kind of a catapulting point for this ball club: Hey, we're going to change the attitude around here," says Giambi. Adds team president Mark Shapiro, "It wasn't just a homer. It was an exclamation point."

Many exclamation points followed, as over the next 2½ weeks the Indians went 13--5 to turn a four-game deficit to the Tigers in the AL Central into a half-game lead. Last Friday the Indians spent a rain-canceled batting practice exactly the way Francona would have wanted them to. They sat together in Fenway's cramped visitors' clubhouse, watching the MLB Network and poking fun at one another's flaws, thereby marginalizing them. The ringleader was Swisher, who was back from a few days' paternity leave. ("She is the most badass thing on the planet," Swisher said of new daughter, Emerson Jay.) In his four seasons with the Yankees, Swisher had been a supporting player—if an always peppy and consistently productive one. Now he is a leader. "The camaraderie factor is monstrous for us," he says.

On a sectional sofa, as the Indians ate McDonald's brought in by a clubbie, it was mentioned that Aviles, the journeyman infielder, had last October been traded from the Red Sox to the Blue Jays not for a player but for that evening's opposing manager, John Farrell. "First or second player ever traded for a manager?" Swisher asked, laughing. "Seventh!" Aviles said. Then it was Swisher's turn. The MLB Network ticker revealed that Swisher was a career .164 hitter, with 25 strikeouts, against that night's starter, John Lackey. "Aw, man!" Swisher cried.

In the next segment Bourn was ranked as the game's eighth-best centerfielder. "You dropped a few spots after the other night," Raburn said to Bourn. Two days earlier Bourn had misplayed a Miguel Cabrera fly ball, batting it over the fence with his glove for a home run. Bourn had taken it hard, at first. Now, he cackled.

Only a confident, self-possessed club can have this sort of interaction. "In the past we were trying to make things happen, but there was never much hope for success," says Masterson. "Now we're here to win."

It's going to be interesting," an employee of the Boston Sheraton said last Thursday as she looked at the collection of guests lined up waiting to check in. They were dressed in capes and robes, wearing helmets, crowns and samurai masks. They carried all manner of faux weapons: swords and staffs and battle-axes. They were in town for Animé Boston, an annual celebration of the fantastical genre of Japanese entertainment. "Weird?" shouted one of the attendees, joyously. "We are in a congregation of weird."

The Indians usually stay at the 1,220-room Sheraton, which is less than a mile from Fenway, but the convention forced them elsewhere. That was a shame, because in many ways they would have fit in well, in that individually each of them has his quirks, but when they come together they thrive. A congregation of weird.

To reach the playoffs, finish with a winning record for the first time since 2007 and convince Cleveland to truly buy in, the Indians will have to contend with forces that are far closer to conventionally perfect than they are. First are the Tigers, their AL Central rivals who are led by the game's best hitter, Cabrera, and star pitcher Justin Verlander.

Then there is the constant reminder of LeBron James, the most flawless athlete Cleveland has ever produced. During a rain delay in Detroit on May 22, the Indians watched as James hit the winning layup in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, after having won an NBA championship the year before—not for the Cavaliers, for whom he played seven title-free seasons, but for the Miami Heat.

They will also have to contend with their home city's memory of past Indians teams that have started well but faltered—the club hasn't won a World Series since 1948—and then, even worse, had stars such as CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez traded away. "You're making some very tough trades in order to keep infusing young players," says Shapiro. "That does have impact on your fan base, maybe a bigger one than we ever realized."

All of this, combined with continuing declines in both population and prosperity, has made Clevelanders wary of the Indians. Despite the club's start, it ranks last in home attendance, drawing a '70s-era figure of slightly more than 16,000 per game. The team hopes to win back its fans in a way that both reflects and appeals to its hometown—with a collection of men who are happy to be there, and who, encouraged by the right manager, might add up to something greater than their flawed selves.

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Francona is not perfect. He doesn't expect his players to be perfect, either. Which is a good thing, because they are not.

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PHOTOPhotograph by RICK OSENTOSKI/USA TODAY SPORTSWHY THIS MAN IS SMILING Francona's in-game management has had a quantifiable impact on the Indians offense, and his overall focus on what his flawed players do well has allowed the team to relax and flourish. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MASTERSON)NONSUPPORTING CAST Reynolds (center) and Masterson (far left) have produced above expectations while Swisher (below) has fostered camaraderie, but the fans have not yet come along for the ride. PHOTODAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS (REYNOLDS)[See caption above] PHOTOCHUCK CROW/THE PLAIN DEALER/LANDOV (PROGRESSIVE)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES (SWISHER)[See caption above]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)